Is it time for a climate change peace and reconciliation process?

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 8 May 2014 14:45 GMT

A girl is helped by her sister as she drinks water in Mellit town in North Darfur March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

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Growing feeling that "we're all sitting ducks if nothing is done" could help drive an unusual deal

Could a peace and reconciliation process between big climate polluters and their victims be one way to move forward action on climate change?

At the U.N. climate negotiations, countries like the United States that are responsible for the bulk of the climate-changing emissions have long resisted cutting them without other nations joining in, and have rejected accepting financial responsibility for crises caused by climate change, fearing unending demands for reparations.

Poorer nations, in turn, that are suffering increasingly grave damage as a result of worsening extreme weather or climate impacts such as sea level rise, insist the United States and other rich polluters must accept their historical responsibility for today's problems, and either pay compensation or adequately fund efforts by poor countries to adapt to the changes and develop cleaner energy systems themselves.

Where is the middle ground? So far it's been hard to find, one of the key reasons negotiations at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have achieved so little even as the problems caused by climate change accelerate.


But Sonja Klinsky, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University in the United States, thinks the peace and reconciliation processes used after the end of apartheid in South Africa, and after Rwanda's genocide could offer a glimpse on how to move forward.

"The only way to resolve these conflicts psychologically ... is to acknowledge the injustice and just as important to have new structures in place so things won't be the same," she said at a discussion on how to "unblock a climate deal" at the Overseas Development Institute in London on Thursday.

Victims "need to feel they're being offered a new deal, that there's something on the table worth putting aside that an injustice has happened," she said.

What might be put on the table, in the case of climate change, remains unclear. But binding emissions reductions and guarantees of adequate funding and technology to help poorer, climate-vulnerable countries adapt to climate change, deal with worsening financial losses and damage and develop cleanly themselves might be a start. Better rights to intellectual property and mechanisms for sharing risk could also play a role.

Equally important in any peace and reconciliation process, Klinsky said, is putting a limit on the liability "perpetrators" face, so "they can't feel held morally responsibility in perpetuity". Such limits on liability can be a major lure to bring offending parties to the table to reach an agreement, rather than face years of being pursued, she said.

"The perpetrators need a way to stop feeling they'll be constantly blamed and appealed to for more support. They need a break, to get rid of that psychologically. That's worth something so they'll negotiate for it," she said.


Would such a deal be politically palatable? That's far from clear but it could offer some important advantages for both sides, experts say. And a growing gut feeling among many people that "we're all sitting ducks if nothing is done" could help, said Martin van Aalst, director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.

As extreme weather worsens around the world, it is becoming increasingly clear that "it's not just the poor countries who are the losers and the rich the winners" from climate-changing emissions, he said. That people everywhere are suffering "strengthens connections".

That could help feed political support for funding not for climate change reparations – a hugely touchy subject – but for humanitarian aid, development assistance, aid to help with loss and damages from extreme weather and other efforts to lift people struggling with climate pressures. In the end, money getting to the right people is what matters, he and others said, and "lifting people out of poverty is something many people (from richer countries) agree with".

He said much of the donor nation money committed for climate change adaptation has turned out to be relabelled development funds, in violation of an agreement at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks that such funding be "new and additional". But on the positive side, such relabelled money is turning out to be helpful as it is integrating climate adaptation and development work closer together – a key to making both more successful.

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